As US President-elect Joe Biden maps out his transition plan, Southeast Asia probably will not be high on an agenda littered with urgent challenges. The Biden team should not let other matters crowd out Southeast Asia for too long, though. Many Southeast Asian decision-makers see the United States as disengaging from the strategically vital crossroads of Asia and rapidly losing ground to China. The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to reinforce gains in China’s relative influence. Southeast Asian leaders are focused above all on economic recovery and look to China to drive growth. While Southeast Asian governments worry quietly about China’s growing sway, most worry even more about the US-China strategic rivalry . Still, however careful their public remarks, Southeast Asian governments do not want to be left on their own with China. A reinvigorated US diplomatic strategy, one that encompasses competition with China while valuing Southeast Asian partnerships in their own right, would be welcomed across the region. To rebuild influence, the incoming Biden administration will have to work better with the grain of the region. This undoubtedly will produce its share of frustrations given the caution of most Southeast Asian countries, the region’s anxiety about “Asean centrality” and the patchy performance of regional institutions. What is the alternative, though? Southeast Asia puts so much effort into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its internal cohesion because it believes, in the words of former Singaporean chief diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, this helps preserve national autonomy in the midst of major power competition . Equally, US foreign policy in Southeast Asia must encompass the reality of China’s economic pull. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks for the region when he says it “cannot afford to alienate China” and that “other Asian countries will try their best not to let any single dispute dominate their overall relationships with Beijing”. Neither is there any point in expecting any Southeast Asian country – even Vietnam – to play an overt role in a balancing strategy against China. Southeast Asia will not be like Northeast or South Asia, where Japan and India are regional poles in the US Indo-Pacific strategy . Faced with these enduring realities, the United States should not waste diplomatic capital trying to win Southeast Asia to its side. Rather, the objective should be to keep Asean safely in the middle. The US needs a more consistent and intensive commitment to the region, one that values Southeast Asian nations for their own sake, not simply as chess pieces in the new great game. Southeast Asia will understand an incoming Biden administration will have many pressing priorities, domestic and international, but it will nonetheless be looking for signs of intent and commitment. The incoming administration could issue an invitation to Asean leaders to attend a special summit in the United States, as former president Barack Obama did in 2016. The administration could move to quickly fill the gaps in the United States’ diplomatic network in Southeast Asia. Early in his term, Biden could commit to attend the East Asia Summit in 2021. Southeast Asian leaders were quietly angered by President Donald Trump sending National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to represent him at the 2019 summit, as he did again this year. A new Biden administration could respond to the needs of a region economically smashed by Covid-19. The US could start by further ramping up aid for recovery. This is what Southeast Asia really wants and needs. Southeast Asian nations face long, hard road to recovery The new administration could also get in the vaccines game, a field shamefully vacated by the Trump administration while China continues its vigorous “ vaccine diplomacy ”. Over the medium term, a Biden administration could work to fill the hole in the US regional trade agenda caused by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Comprehensive regional arrangements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership ( CPTPP ) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are more than just trade deals. To quote Singapore’s prime minister again, the region sees them as “platforms that enable Asia-Pacific countries to cooperate with one another, develop stakes in one another’s success, and together mould the regional architecture and the rules that govern it”. Biden has been clear that if the US ever joins the CPTPP, it will not be in a hurry. There are alternatives that could be more politically palatable stepping stones, though, as the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Wendy Cutler recently explored. An interim sectoral agreement, for example, on digital trade or trade in medical products are options. A new Biden administration could also better align its trade policy with its strategic objectives. Biden has said he will be tough on unfair trade practices, but the Trump administration’s obsessive focus on trade deficits unhelpfully put even the strongest of US partners in the region – notably Vietnam – under pressure. China looks to outflank US with bid to join CPTPP The Biden team needs to get the balance right in its democracy and human rights advocacy. There is more the region’s democratic partners can and should do to fight corruption and support human rights and the rule of law, but the United States cannot afford to make values the primary driver of its engagement in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia does not want major power conflict, but neither does it want the United States to cede the region to China . A foreign policy better geared to the needs of Southeast Asia is not incompatible with advancing direct US economic and security national interests or with tough competition with China. A revamped US diplomatic strategy for Southeast Asia will better support the region’s long-term resilience and sovereignty in an era of rising Chinese influence. Richard Maude is executive director (policy) of Asia Society Australia and senior fellow of Asia Society Policy Institute. This article is published in a content partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Covid New (Ab)Normal initiative.